Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Donate today to support the journalism you rely on!

Devout Muslim Preaches His Love For America


Some 60 million people have moved to the United States from around the world since 1965. That's the year President Lyndon Johnson signed a landmark immigration bill. The law transformed America into a truly multicultural nation. NPR's Tom Gjelten is bringing us some of those immigrant stories - today, a devout Muslim from Libya who preaches his love for America.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Many immigrant groups have faced hostility. The Irish did in their time. Jews did. Italians did - and now, Muslim immigrants. At the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in northern Virginia, the Friday sermons often touch on conditions faced by American Muslims.


ESAM OMEISH: In this season of elections where bigotry and hatred for Islam has become rampant...

GJELTEN: There's a lay preacher this day, Dr. Esam Omeish, a surgeon at a nearby hospital. He preaches often on the role of Islam in American society.


E. OMEISH: It will take us, the Muslims in America, to be the ones that stand for what Islam stands for.

GJELTEN: Omeish sees a contradiction in America. Muslim immigrants like himself encounter prejudice here but also find political and religious freedom. His parents brought him to America at the age of 15 from Libya. Everybody there is Muslim. But it was only here in America that Omeish was inspired by Islam and where he found support for that inspiration.

E. OMEISH: The main reason why I love America more than anything else and I consider it to be home for me and for my children is not just because I've lived here for as long as I have. It's more because it nurtures what I believe defines me as an individual, which is my Islam.

GJELTEN: This mainly Christian country could nurture his Islam, Omeish says, because it allows people to pursue their own identities.

E. OMEISH: You're seeing how people interact with their own set of ideas, whether it's religious or whether it's this and that. And so you're constantly re-examining your own and seeing how you're going to fit them in the greater scheme of things.

GJELTEN: Omeish started U.S. high school with barely any English but graduated on time with high honors. He thanks his teachers. He credits his principal for supporting his push for a Muslim student group. After high school, he went to Georgetown University, a Jesuit school.

E. OMEISH: I remember my first course in college, in addition to my biology and chemistry 'cause I was going into premed, was a course called, the problem of God. I'm like, what the heck? And the professor was a Jesuit who was very much questioning his own faith, if you may.

GJELTEN: It was that support for free thinking that sold Omeish on America. He had permission here to dig into Islam, freedom he would not have found in some other countries. The woman he married was also a devout Muslim, also from Libya. Their two daughters, now in college, are also observant also freethinkers. Anwar, now at Harvard, was politically active in high school and sometimes challenged her father's U.S. patriotism.

ANWAR OMEISH: My dad, he's an American, right? He came. He did the whole American dream thing, whatever. But...

GJELTEN: But she draws the line at conventional notions of American exceptionalism.

A. OMEISH: Yeah, so when you're like, oh, America's, like, the greatest country on Earth and whatever - first of all, I see, like, kind of a - there's like an implicit racism in that. Like, why do you think you're better than everybody else?

GJELTEN: After high school, Anwar spent a year in Jordan studying Islam. There, she found herself sympathizing with Christians. Having been a Muslim in America, she's sensitive to what a religious minority faces. And she challenged stereotypes.

A. OMEISH: You know, a lot of these people have a very negative view of the United States. And so I'd be like, you know, life in the U.S. is actually not that bad. And so I'd end up defending America. And I'd be like, like, this is so strange for me because I am the opposite at home.

GJELTEN: Where she's quick to criticize her country or most anything else. Her father emphasizes this freedom. Five years ago, he actually ran for public office, competing unsuccessfully for a seat in the Virginia legislature, emphasizing his American values. In his sermons complaining about some candidate like Donald Trump or Ben Carson saying bad things about Islam, it's not so much that such comments are anti-Muslim as anti-American.


E. OMEISH: Because he's transgressing everything foundational about what America is, not just about what we worry about as a community or - it is about fundamentally what this country is.

GJELTEN: To him, America is or should be about inclusion. Immigrants like Omeish don't and can't fit the white European mold that prevailed in this country 50 years ago. But they have embraced what they believe to be the key American values. The country has already become multicultural. Given immigration trends, it will only grow more diverse, and these new Americans want to share in their country's identity. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

GREENE: Our colleague Tom Gjelten is bringing us these immigrant profiles from his new book, "A Nation Of Nations." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.